The experience(s) of prostitution

This is an edited transcript of Linda Thompson’s talk at the Experience of Prostitution webinar on Sunday 27 September 2020.


Hello everyone. My name is Linda Thompson and I am absolutely delighted to join the webinar today on the experience – no, the experiences – of prostitution.

I work for the Women’s Support Project. I am national coordinator on commercial sexual exploitation. I get funded by the Scottish Government to develop and deliver programmes of work to raise awareness of the harms and realities of commercial sexual exploitation as a form of violence against women.

I think the event today is really timely – to look at the lived experience and realities of women in the sex industry. And what I hope to cover in my very short 20 minutes is a little bit about the Scottish context; about commercial sexual exploitation and violence against women, and the links between it; to cover some of the realities we’ve heard about women’s experiences, and then to propose some ways ahead.

I have to say thank you to Nordic Model Now! for organising the event and also to all the other speakers. I hope it provides a really rich session that brings women’s voices to the fore.

In order to work with that, I’d like to share with you a quote from a woman, Wendy, who was involved in a piece of work that I developed called Inside/Outside. And Wendy talks about that experience of trying to articulate and tell others about what was happening to her while she was involved in prostitution – but for her, they really didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to know about the harms. It made them too uncomfortable to actually listen to that. For her, that silencing is like a gag.

It is incredibly important that we allow women the space, the time and the respect to articulate what has happened to them, because that is how we will learn and be able to come up with a way to eradicate the system of prostitution.

I’m normally used to delivering public education in person – so it’s a little bit different sitting here on the webinar today – speaking to a camera in my quiet lonely office. When I deliver public education, people sometimes think of me as a storm crow who comes into the room. And very often I talk about other forms of violence against women and then I’ll go – but what about women in prostitution? And you can sense the atmosphere change because people are uncomfortable having to confront and be confronted by the reality of prostitution.

I fully acknowledge that for a lot of people it is a thorny issue; it is an incredibly contested issue; and it is a toxic environment. But we have to remove the toxicity in order to make it a safer space for women to speak out about their own experiences.

The Scottish strategic context

I’d like to talk a little bit about the Scottish strategic context – because for us in Scotland, very often people look at us and go, what’s going on up there?

Globally Scotland has been thought of as incredibly progressive in terms of gender-based violence and violence against women. And it has enacted some quite far-reaching and progressive interventions, including our legislative model.

We were one of the first countries that had specific domestic abuse courts that focused on the perpetrators and focused the attention of the criminal justice system onto those perpetrators, so they didn’t get lost in the system – and that was about shining a spotlight on perpetrators and holding them accountable.

We recently introduced what’s called the Coercive Control Act, which is new legislation to capture different forms of violence against women and there’s a recognition that violence is not just physical and not just sexual violence. There can be more subtle dynamics at play, around coercion and control. So, in Scotland we decided to legislate against this, even though it is a difficult thing to legislate on, because we decided we wanted to hold perpetrators accountable.

We also introduced the Misuse of Sexual Images Act – which some people call ‘revenge pornography.’ The Misuse of Sexual Images Act is based on women’s consent and consenting for their images to be shared. Again, we legislated on men overruling and overriding women’s consent.

So, in Scotland we decided that legislation is a very important tool to hold perpetrators to account.

So with that in mind, how did we get to this stage?

Well, we allowed survivors to name the violence and we allowed them to talk about their experiences, and we believed them and what they said.

So it was no longer possible to dismiss it and say, well she chose to get into that relationship and if it were so bad she would leave, she must be getting something out of it. Or at least she gets a roof over her head. That was not the direction that we took.

We wanted survivors to name and define the violence and that allowed us to make the links between the different forms of violence and also back out into our culture and our society. We decided to focus on the perpetrator, and to use our legislation in that way, and it took over 30 years and there’s still a huge amount of work to be done.

But there were many brave and courageous conversations that took place around how to move our understanding forward.

And surely now is the time that we apply that same process, thinking and rigour around holding perpetrators accountable for this particular form of violence against women – for commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution.

We have a national strategy, Equally Safe, which aims to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women.

And we named commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution as a form of violence against women. In Scotland we decided we needed to put the focus on preventing it ever happening in the first place. We also need to support women while they’re involved in any form of violence against women but we also need to support them to leave.

We decided that ultimately we want to eradicate all forms of violence against women and to have zero tolerance for any form of violence against women in Scotland.

So, we have a combined approach that is about preventing it happening in the first place and eradicating it.

If you want to prevent violence against women, you have to look at the whole jigsaw puzzle around what causes it.

We know that it is a complex social and economic phenomenon and also a cultural phenomenon. But if it is a cultural phenomenon, it is not inevitable. It is not part of human nature and therefore we can move to eradicate it.

But in order to do that, we need to understand the story behind violence against woman, and also, I would suggest, we need to consider commercial sexual exploitation within that. Because if we fail to do that, we won’t be seeing the full picture.

If we accept that violence against women is rooted in gender inequality, we must look to how we remove barriers to women’s equality, whether that is economic, political or social. Therefore, ending gender inequality must be one of our driving motivations.

If we talk about gender inequality and gender equality, we have to look at the attitudes and values that exist in our culture and men’s beliefs that set them at a higher level – that basically creates, perpetrates and condones gender inequality.

We know that in our culture, men have beliefs that they are entitled to sexual access to women, that they are somehow superior to women, and they are entitled to be aggressors.

So we have to ask where these beliefs come from? What builds these beliefs? What reinforces these beliefs? And what accepts these beliefs?

Conducive culture?

“In sexualised popular culture there are the same messages about gender that underpin the dynamics of violence and abuse” Liz Kelly 2007, Coy 2009, EVAW 2011

This is why it is crucial that we address the sex industry and prostitution. Because in our popular culture, there are the same messages about gender that underpin the dynamics of violence and abuse.

Many of you will probably be familiar with the work of Liz Kelly, and more recently with Maddie Coy, on this particular issue and they are very clear about making the links between the existence of prostitution and the acceptance of prostitution and a conducive culture full of negative and reductive messages about women and women’s roles.

“Dehumanise / objectify

“Dehumanizing women or viewing them as inferior to men occurs through objectification, a process in which women are “made into a thing for others’ sexual use” – American Psychological Association

We know that in order to enact violence against any particular group, it is much easier to do that when you have dehumanised and objectified them. And if you think about the sex industry, it is based on the idea that women as a class are dehumanised objects for the sexual use of primarily men.

So we have to question the role of the sex industry. And if we look at the principles from CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women – it says we must eradicate the stereotypes, prejudices, customs and practices that condone or promote gender-based violence.

We only have to unpick the sex industry and the experiences of women who are involved within it, to see how it promotes negative stereotypes, negative customs and practices, and how it condones and promotes gender-based violence.

Sexual Exploitation

“any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust for sexual purposes, including but not limited to profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from sexual exploitation.”

“sexual exploitation” to refer to sexualized, exploitative gender based crimes against women and girls exclusively.” – Secretary-General’s Bulletin Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse

In 2003, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, clearly indicated that sexual exploitation is based on the abuse of vulnerability and an abuse of power. Now if you think about the concept of power – what gives someone power over another? And what gives one group power over another?

In Scotland, we have a robust definition around child sexual exploitation which locates the abuse of power at the heart of it. We spent a great deal of time unpicking and looking at this concept of power and what gives one person or group power over another.

We found that it could be because somebody was older than someone that might give them a position of power over them. Men are in a more powerful position as a class than women. Also, if you’ve got a background where you can access education and intellect and thinking, that also potentially puts you in a more powerful position, as does your access to resources, whether that is money, drugs, alcohol, accommodation, safety, protection. If you have access to those resources, that puts you in a more powerful position than others – and so can your status, social standing and influence, culture and community.

If you think about the stigmatisation, the judgement, that is put on women who are involved in the sex industry, clearly they are put in a less powerful position than many other people overall. That is not to say there aren’t individuals who are powerful within the sex industry, but in a broad sense, we acknowledge that power is more often given to men.

And in the context of sexual exploitation, it is the person who is buying, exchanging, or who has access to resources, who is in a more powerful position than the person who needs access to all of those things.

So we have to question the foundations of power that run through the sex industry.

And the growth of the sex industry in the last 20 years has served to promote a very skewed idea of sexuality where women are framed as objects.

We need to question the role of the sex industry in creating and perpetuating some of the attitudes and beliefs that reinforce the power dynamics.

We have to ask, does the sex industry promote gender equality? Does it challenge gender inequality? And does it address any issues of gender stereotypes?

If we say no – that it doesn’t promote gender equality, that it doesn’t challenge gender inequality, and that it does promote gender stereotypes, then we have to think, what is its role in creating a conducive culture for other forms of violence against women?

If we look at this simple diagram that basically says unless we address and challenge the foundations of violence, then we will never move forward to address all other forms of violence against women.

I would suggest that commercial sexual exploitation is very clearly placed in with objectification of women, sexism, traditional roles, narrow, rigid gender stereotypes of women, and sexual harassment.

If you think about the experiences of women within the system of prostitution, they experience all of these in and of themselves, but also the system of prostitution creates that foundation and basis and it perpetuates the attitudes and beliefs that place men as sexual aggressors who are entitled to women’s bodies.

Now if you think about the experiences of women in prostitution, we know it’s a contested area and we know that there are many resources invested in lobbying groups to put forward ideas around decriminalisation of the sex trade.

In Scotland in 2015, Jean Urquhart, an MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) at that time, proposed reforming the legislation through the Prostitution Reform Bill. There was very clear rhetoric around that, that we should only let women who currently sell sex lead the conversation.

Isn’t that an interesting concept? If you think back to what I said earlier about allowing women to name the violence, it’s incredibly important that women who are currently involved are able to talk about their experiences but we must also listen to women who have left that particular form of violence because, as we know, whenever a woman leaves a position or situation of abuse, and when she’s in a safer place or in a space and time away from that, she’s able to reflect back and have a much different understanding around her own experience.

But this idea that it’s only women who currently sell can talk about it also means that no one else is allowed a say. If we think of domestic abuse, do we really suggest that just because we may not directly experience domestic abuse, we’re not allowed to talk about it, that we’re not allowed to lead conversations, that we’re not able to be involved in those conversations?

I think that is a silencing tool.

If we think about domestic abuse and its cultural impact, then we critique it. If we accept that the system of prostitution has broader cultural impacts, then we must critique it.

“Feminist analysis does not make universal claims for women who sell sex, just as it makes few universal claims in other contexts. We are, for example, able to acknowledge individual women’s agency in becoming mothers, and that of families to divide care between adults in a way that suits themselves, while critiquing the gendered assumptions and structural barriers that drive and underpin those choices. Similarly, we can acknowledge the agency of individual women who sell sex while critiquing the gendered structures that undergird the industry and its population-level harms.” – Engender submission to the Prostitution Law Reform (Scotland) Bill consultation

It’s important to note that as Engender, one of the leading feminist organisations in Scotland has highlighted, that critiquing a system is not about critiquing the individuals within it, it’s not about denying that they have agency, and it’s not about denying the skills, resources or qualities that they have.

Basically, it’s saying that we can accept that women have agency and make choices within different situations. However, we must take a step back and we must look at the broader gender structures that underpin the sex industry and the impact it has on the wider population.

“Social media and liberal feminist websites alike favor the ‘choice’ argument, which focuses on the fact that some women enter into prostitution on their own accord. But this thinking ignores the context surrounding these ‘choices’ and the larger impacts on society and gender equality.” – Megan Murphy

With that in mind, it is important that we look and frame our discussions around women’s choice and the individual’s choice within the broader context of choice in our society – which is an unequal society.

Listening to women involved in prostitution

In Scotland, we decided to look and talk and listen and engage with women who are currently involved in selling sex. To keep true to this, via the Encompass Network I undertook a piece of work called Inside/Outside. It was a story-telling project involving women in all different areas of the sex industry in Scotland and allowing them to tell their stories and the story of their experiences.

There were 16 women involved in the project. Not all of them saw it the whole way through. I want to give thanks to the women: Cassy, Katy, Stephanie, Sarah, Natasha, Natalia, Levi, Katie, Wendy, Sarah Jane, and Joanne.

They are an incredible group of women. I was incredibly privileged to work with them. They were funny, resourceful, skilled, powerful, strong women who led really complex lives. I’d just like to give thanks to them for allowing us the privilege to hear their stories.

Hearing their stories and listening to what they have to say clearly articulates the notions of choice, consent and control that existed or didn’t exist for them within the sex industry.

We turned the stories into a book and we also allowed women to take part in a creative project to find different ways to illustrate their experiences within prostitution.

I would like to start with Levi who took this image and entitled it ‘Crumbling underneath.’ For her it summed up the idea that she put on a brave face, a painted face, while she was involved in prostitution.

Whenever people asked her how was she doing and what was it like for her, she said, It’s fine. And they accepted that. But they didn’t realise what was going on underneath, which was far from fine. She was crumbling.

The women selected this image as the signature image of the project, because they all felt it summed up their experience – which was putting a mask on and saying, I’m fine, I’ve chosen it, it’s great – but that was not the reality underneath.

Wendy, who we heard from earlier, took this image to symbolise a young woman she saw with a punter. And she said that this young woman was dead behind the eyes; that she had given up.

A lot of the women talked about how their experience inside prostitution had taken so much away from them.

Natasha, a woman who was trafficked into Scotland, talked about her experiences and this image represents the amount of sex she had to have in a week with punters.

And she talked clearly about how that was not her choice. She wasn’t able to choose who she had sex with or when she had sex with them. They would just turn up – arranged by her pimp or her traffickers – and she had to be available 24 hours a day.

She also said she had to be drunk every single day. She had to get tipsy and drink a bottle of vodka or otherwise she couldn’t go into that room with the punter. A lot of the women talked about having to use drink and drugs to get through.

In our work around consent and public education around consent, we question the ability of women and men to fully consent to sex when they are under the influence of drink and drugs. But for a lot of these women, that was their daily reality.

Natalia, who was involved in street prostitution, talked about the need to carry a weapon because of the threat of violence. She also clearly said she was not prepared for that and so was not able to make an informed choice to get involved in prostitution. She was not aware of what was going to happen to her.

Wendy also talked about that threat of violence. If you’re having sex under a threat of violence, I think we need to question your ability to fully consent to it.

Natalia talked about the concept of money and money buying consent. She talked about how in reality, the punters might as well have given that money directly into the hands of the drug dealers because it never stayed with her.

Levi talked about men pushing boundaries and pushing boundaries and refusing to listen to her saying no.

Levi also talked about the disassociation that she experienced and also about her experience of drugs. She was off her head with speed the first time she saw a punter and is now unable to remember anything other than the boots she wore that first time.

So again, notions of choice, consent and control. She talked about the dehumanisation, the objectification. All she was, was a plaything, a party toy for the punters.

And she talks about that link for her around using drugs to deaden the experience in order for her to cope with what was happening to her. She also told me that heroin made her quiet and if she was quiet, she was less likely to get a punch in the face from a punter.

So again, questions of consent, choice, and control are clearly shown for Levi – and consent not being in existence for each and every time she had to see a punter.

She talked about her boundaries being pushed and pushed and pushed and men refusing to accept her no.

Cassy, a trans woman who worked in saunas, talked about the idea of choice. It’s almost there and you’re told that you’ve got choice, but you don’t really have choice. You are obliged to see every client that comes in.

Katie was also involved in the saunas in Edinburgh. She took this picture and she entitled it, ‘Step into the unknown’ because she didn’t know what she was getting involved in.

She also used drink and drugs – because that’s how you cope. And when that wasn’t there, that blow came. When the buffer wasn’t there of drink and drugs, then the reality of the experience hit her.

Sarah Jane also talked about punters pushing boundaries, pushing boundaries, pushing boundaries. They are in a more powerful position compared to the vulnerable women who are no longer able to control what is happening to their bodies when they are with a client or customer or punter.

Cassie talks about the need to split off and that need to not be fully present. And if you’re not fully present, are you able to give authentic consent?

Joanne said that men didn’t buy her consent; men think they’re buying your silence.

Joanne did a piece of work with a Glaswegian artist, Catherine Weir. Through these pieces of art of Joanne’s story, she clearly shows that dehumanisation and how every experience actually had an impact. It wasn’t just the violent men. By the end of it, it had taken everything away. Everything had gone, leaving her as a blank mask.

She talks about the dehumanisation and how actually to the punters it wouldn’t really matter that you’re not a human being, that really you’re just a thing.

She talks about the men. And I asked her to tell me about something big that happened in street prostitution and she talked about one incident. And actually, the one incident she talked about was an absence of violence.

She talked about punters and about their choice as a contrast to the women’s choice. She’d never met a girl or a woman in it who’d had a choice – but the punters had a choice.

What listening to women involved in prostitution tells us

So, I think whenever you listen to those women’s voices, they clearly show through their experiences that choice, consent, control, power – all of that – was not always present for them.

So when we think about the system of prostitution, we have to start questioning why is it that we allow this to continue to happen?

I do work with the Encompass Network that brings together the frontline services across Scotland. Through COVID, we have been lucky enough to secure a small amount of money from the Scottish Government for a crisis fund for women. Women have been coming forward and applying – women involved in all aspects of the sex industry – and they are absolutely desperate for money.

COVID has shown the fault-lines. These women were existing in a situation of poverty before COVID hit and it has highlighted how vulnerable and precarious are the situations they are in. Women are needing money for basic living essentials. They need money for food for themselves and their families. They need money for housing in order to keep a roof over their head – a basic human right. They need money for heating and lighting and a lot of them need money for their kids and for the basics.

That in itself shows you that prostitution does not solve the problem of poverty for women, in fact, for a lot of them it compounds it.

And where we are now as we move through and onwards – supposedly through the route map out of lockdown – and the situation where we’re going back into lockdown – and I think it shows that because women have been put on the back burner, this form of violence has not really been treated in a consistent way, and these women have been left behind.

So as this artist says, if you’re faced with a choice between prostitution and poverty, is it really a choice?

Rachel Moran, who many of you will know, talks about that assumption of choice that leads to the idea of consent – so that if a woman chooses to be involved in prostitution, she is assumed to have consented to everything that then happens to her. However, there is a difference between consent and reluctant submission.

Women very often exist in situations and contexts beyond their own control and their entry into and experience within prostitution is linked to poverty, discrimination and disadvantage.

With that in mind, I think the only thing that we can look at is how we will meet that system of prostitution and ensure that there are safety nets in place for the women and that we decriminalise the sale of sex and make sure that they have access to all the safety, protection, healthcare and support, and exiting routes.

Just because a woman wasn’t physically ‘forced’ to be sold for sex doesn’t mean there weren’t other forces that were pushing her towards that.

“The argument against prostitution is fairly simple: Women should not have to have sex with men they don’t desire. Women should be able to survive and thrive without having to accommodate male desires and abuse in order to pay their rent or feed their children.” – Meghan Murphy

This quote for me really sums it up: The argument against the system of prostitution is fairly simple – women shouldn’t have to have sex with men they don’t desire. They should be able to thrive and not just survive – them and their families – without accommodating men’s desires and abuse in order to live.

We need to change attitudes and we have to challenge attitudes and we need to eradicate the misogyny and entitlement that fuels this form of violence. And we will never move forward towards equality while one sex is for sale and while one sex is able to buy another. Women’s rights to safety must always be greater than men’s rights to buy sex.

Having to have sexual activity and be paid for it due to desperation is not consent and anybody that uses a vulnerable or poor woman for intimate gratification needs to be held accountable.

We cannot move forward with gender equality while we accept that there is a class of women who can be used and abused and violence can be enacted against them.

What is to be done?

So what do we do about this?

Well that question was posed to a former Justice Minister in Scotland, Kenny MacAskill. And he said, “Maybe sometimes looking the other way is the best. Laws cannot always provide answers to deep-rooted social problems.”

And while laws cannot provide the answer, laws can create a normative culture and send out a clear signal as to what we consider to be acceptable in our society. And I don’t accept the idea that all you have to do is turn a blind eye.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to the kids and vulnerable adults who are chewed up and spit out by this industry. I didn’t have a choice. The girls I work with now didn’t have a choice. We didn’t make a decision; a decision was made for us. That’s who we need to protect. That’s who I fight for.” – Audrey Morrisey

As Audrey Morrissey says, we cannot do that. We need to fight for the vulnerable. We need to fight for vulnerable children, vulnerable young people and vulnerable adults who are drawn into this industry because of poverty, discrimination and inequality.

In Scotland last year, the Scottish Government launched its programme for government and in it, it said it was committed to exploring what more needs to be done and part of that was to consult on approaches to challenging demand for prostitution.

The Scottish Government has recently opened a consultation on the way ahead – it’s open until early December.

We would propose that any model that is developed must place at its absolute heart the women who are most vulnerable and have little alternative. And it’s right that that’s where we focus our attention.

I accept that there are women who say they enjoy what they do, that feel empowered by what they do and they feel it is a form of work.

But actually, our public policy needs to be driven by meeting the needs and supporting the needs of the most vulnerable and ensuring that they can’t and won’t be placed in a situation of vulnerability which can be exploited by others.

We proposed a seven-element model for Scotland to prevent and eradicate prostitution and we put it out there because we felt that it was about time that these kinds of conversations took place.

I’ve been in this job 12 years now and I still hear the same conversations about the challenges of engaging around the system of prostitution, and how contentious it is and how difficult it is and how toxic it is.

And you know what? Whilst that vacuum of discussion and policy decision has been in existence, women have been put on the back burner and they have been ill served.

The seven elements are:

  1. Embedding timely prevention work in education and around sexuality and consent.
  2. Increased public education and awareness about the harms and realities of prostitution and its nature as a form of gender-based violence.
  3. Work within universal and mainstream services to build capacity to ensure they can better meet the needs of the women who are involved in prostitution.
  4. Support and harm-reduction specialist services that work with women while they are involved in prostitution.
  5. Comprehensive, well-resourced, and trauma-informed exiting models. At the moment a great number of the women applying to the Encompass Network crisis fund have said that now is their time to get out. So we have to have a robust model and remove barriers to exiting for the women involved.
  6. Decriminalise the sale of sex – if we see the women as victims of this particular form of violence against women, why are we continuing to criminalise them and leave them with criminal records?
  7. Ultimately, we have to look at those who benefit and profit from the system of prostitution and who do have a choice – those who choose to exploit the economic and social vulnerability of women. That has to be those who advertise, those who profit from, who market women in prostitution, and we also have to look at holding perpetrators to account.

In Scotland, we believe that now is the time that we have to move forward with this and hold perpetrators accountable.

I’d just like to leave you with a couple of quotes. This one’s from Sally, one of our highly experienced and skilled workers, and she said that if prostitution is not good enough for your daughter or my daughter, then whose daughter is it good enough for?

It’s a fundamental question because if you accept the system and that it’s going to exist, then you’re also going to accept that there must be a group or class of women that it’s acceptable for.

And I won’t accept that. I won’t accept that as a vision for those individual women, not for women across the board, not for my country and not for where we want to frame ourselves.

“Women and men will never be equal as long as prostitution exists. It shouldn’t be acceptable to buy women for sex, not if we care about each other, and not if we care about what we want our society to be like.” – Amy, Ruhama Annual Report 2010

If we in Scotland want to frame ourselves as a society that is based on equality and fairness and our vision for that, then prostitution can’t exist.

It is not acceptable to buy women for prostitution – not if we care about each other and not if we care about our society.

Surely in 2020, when we have been through a global pandemic that we are still experiencing, and that pandemic is pushing more and more women towards the system of prostitution, this surely has to be the time when we decide that we are going to eradicate prostitution and move to prevent it. And surely the only way we can realistically do that is if we decide that prostitution is no longer acceptable in our society and in our culture.

I hope you have a really enjoyable rest of the afternoon. I’m sure it’s going to be incredibly interesting – and also challenging as we listen to the voices of the survivors and we also listen to what has happened in other places, such as Holbeck.

Thank you very much to Nordic Model Now! for today and for all of you for giving me your time.

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